Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Paying for 'Friendship'

When an autistic adult mentioned to me that he was spending a lot of time and money in cam chats, "tipping" his virtual friends, this raised a few questions for me about how much this was connected to the isolation he felt as a "very lonely Aspie" and how much is a general shift in online access to such "adult entertainment" options.

If you aren't familiar with the cam world, you can read the following:

The more questions I asked of Lonely Aspie, the more I recognized that his problem was less about the adult nature of the online setting and more about isolation in general.

Before finding the "cam girls" online, he was addicted to online games. He would spend hours and hours, and a fair amount of money, fighting virtual monsters. He moved from fantasy games to war games. Apparently, you can buy virtual weapons, armor, and other extras — with very real money.

"My friendships are all online," he explained. "The games let me have something in common with people. And I'm good at them."

I was reminded of the book Finding Kansas, by Aaron Likens. I wrote about Aaron Likens' book several times [see http://theautisticme.blogspot.com/2012/05/finding-myself-in-finding-kansas.html]. Aaron Likens found meaning, some sense of purpose, in being the best at a video game. He was part of a "community" of gamers. Virtual connections, via games, are common — not merely among autistics, either. We know that the game industry rivals Hollywood. So, while autistics might be obsessed with a game, maybe that's not so unique anymore.

I fear that people are losing themselves online.

I've spent a lot of time online thanks to life-long insomnia. At night, I'll keep chat windows open and I'll use Internet Relay Chat to discuss everything from literature to programming. But, the online "friends" don't seem the same to me as the people I meet face-to-face. Over the last few years, I wasn't online much because I was busy moving and teaching. I didn't even realize that Yahoo, AOL, MySpace, and other chat room services had ceased operations. Obviously, I wasn't compelled to stay in touch with the virtual "friends" I had in chat rooms — they were mere acquaintances, not meaningful connections.

But for Lonely Aspie, he insists that the online connections are his only meaningful emotional connections.

If he played online games a few hours a week, visited cam sites a few times a month, then I would understand. Everything in moderation, I don't see a reason to worry. But these are expensive habits, without much promise for real emotional connections. Or maybe I'm wrong? Lots of people play games online, spending real money on custom computers, gaming keyboards, headsets, and more. Gamers take their hobby seriously, just like golfers, tennis players, and cyclists. But, I don't see the benefits to gaming that you get from being active.

What about the free options for social connections online?

I asked if he realized there are still free chat rooms, on IRC, where he could talk about "meaningful" topics? The chats aren't busy, but they aren't entirely abandoned. There are also chat rooms on some autism communities. Maybe he could try the forums, which aren't live but are still social connections.

No, he felt something "real" as part of a team in a virtual war zone. That was something other chats didn't offer. On various games, he was spending a large portion of his meager income. And then he found the "cam girls." What money was left after the video games went to the cam girls, buying "friendship" online.

I've met autistics obsessed with how many "friends" they have on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks. They want to be popular, to be like everyone else. At least those are free websites, until you start buying tokens within various online games… then the sites aren't free anymore.

How much was Lonely Aspie spending on the cam girls? About $200 a week. I know I made an audible gasp. I probably said something rude, too, about how foolish that was. That's $800 to $900 a month! Do you realize what most of us can do with $800? I have a lot of things I'd rather do with $800. Heck, I don't spend that much on my "real" friends, mainly because I'm not a millionaire.

I understand wanting to treat people nicely. I feel compelled to pay for meals when I ask to meet someone at a cafe or coffee shop. I was taught that you pay for meals, to be polite. But food and drinks are about the only thing I understand paying for when you gather socially. Even that is more than I really should spend, as my wife reminds me.

Paying for food? That's a long-standing social tradition. Randomly tossing money at a virtual "friend" for no reason? That's hard for me to understand.

"The women are like my therapist. I tip them for listening to me," Lonely Aspie defended himself.

I suppose a therapist could cost $200 a week or more. But your therapist isn't sitting topless on camera for 100 viewers. Admit it, you're paying to see the woman be cute. The more you tip, the more likely she is to remove her clothes on cam. That's what you want. That's what you don't get from World of Warcraft or Gears of War or whatever it is you play online.

"Yeah, I like seeing them naked. I've never had a girlfriend and I like feeling like I might have one, someday."

You are not going to get a girlfriend, a real relationship, hanging out in cam rooms.

If you enjoy the cam rooms, that's your business, but you won't be building a real friendship with someone who will be in your life for years to come. Yes, men and women like to believe online connections are that deep, but few (very, very few) online connections reach that level. Generally, the online is ephemeral, a way to deal with boredom.

Imagine taking that same $200 a month to join a local club or organization. If you spent $200 on "real" activities, you might meet people with similar interests and make friends. While $200 doesn't buy a lot of entertainment in today's world, it does buy "cheap seat" tickets to a sporting event and some food. It buys tickets to theatrical productions. It buys passes to state and national parks. It buys sports equipment. You can do things and meet real people for $200 a week!

"But what about the sex things? I really want those, too!"

Sorry, but watching a woman touch herself on a camera is not sex. It isn't voyeurism, since she is inviting you (for a fee) to watch, but it isn't a real, meaningful connection.

If you want "the sex things" in life, you need to connect to a real person. Can you meet someone online? Yes, via a dating or social networking site, you can. Could you have a one-in-a-million chance of a virtual "Pretty Woman" connection? Maybe, but that is a one-in-a-million thing. The women Lonely Aspie is "tipping" online are in business. They are trying to pay bills and earn extra money. I doubt any of them are on cam hoping to find a meaningful connection.

I asked Lonely Aspie if he had tried the online dating sites. He had. No dates. The virtual "meetings" tended to end abruptly. I asked what he was telling the women.

"I want a girlfriend and I really want to have sex."

It was pretty clear why the online dating effort wasn't working. I'm sure women read something like that and are creeped out by the directness.

I mentioned that people like to form friendships, before having sex.

"They don't on television or in movies. People like sex. Did you know you can have sex in Second Life? People go there for the sex."

I reminded him, just like watching someone on camera, watching avatars have sex wasn't the same as holding the hand of a real person.

"Sure it is, or people wouldn't do it. I built a house in Second Life because women want you to own a house. Want to see it?"

I was at a loss. His friendships and his "relationships" aren't real. They just aren't, at least not in my view. He argued that his friends were as real as mine. "And you don't have that many followers or friends," he pointed out to me. "I have 700 friends on Facebook and over 1000 Twitter followers. You don't."

I was at a complete loss for words. Yet, because I can't keep quiet when I should, I reiterated my belief that to make real connections, you have to leave the virtual world.

Lonely Aspie didn't like my advice. He didn't want to meet strangers at concerts, parks, or elsewhere. He didn't want to use Meetup.com or Facebook to find groups with interests similar to his. He actively resisted my suggestions, and seemed set on spending his money on games and cam girls.

Someone is getting rich off his need to have "friends" and that's sad. But, I gave the best advice I could. Maybe I'm not understanding the situation? Maybe there's something I am missing?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Autism Book Revision Coming: Spectrum of Relationships 1.5

By mid-September there will be an update to A Spectrum of Relationships on Amazon. This will be a minor, and free, update to the text for Amazon Kindle readers. If you own the book, you will need to manually update the file, however.

I don't like knowing there are errors in the ePub editions of the book. Susan and I are making several passes through the text to make sure it complies with AP Style and does not contain grammar or mechanical errors. In at least one instance, the "error" was not an error, but a misunderstanding of my word choice. I wrote that friends "complement" us, meaning they complete our identities and offer us a chance to be more. That is not an error, since I didn't not mean that friends "compliment" us — though I suppose they do praise us, at times.

I'm uncertain if the Nook store on BN allows a similar update policy, but we hope to replace the book there, as well. I don't like the idea of charging owners of a book for a minor revision.

During the coming months, I also hope to expand the book for a new second edition. Again, since there isn't an ISBN issue with ePubs, I hope to make the second edition free to current owners. I feel that's the right policy for a textbook. The price of the second edition will be higher than the current $0.99, to offset the time and energy required to update the work properly.

I am working with Heather Conroy of HConroy Consulting [http://www.hconroyconsulting.com/consulting/] on several projects. We don't know if Heather will have time to help revise A Spectrum of Relationships, but she is co-authoring several other important guides for autistics and the people in their lives.

If you would like to propose questions or topics for our guides on intimate relationships, success in college, or success in the workplace, please let me know. We want these guides to be practical, with material that can be applied to daily life.

Thank you for supporting this blog and the other projects. If you would like Heather or me (or both of us) to speak to a group about relationships, education, or workplace issues, please don't hesitate to contact us.
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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Autism on Campus: Sexual Exploration

Sex (Photo credit: danielito311)
"Did you fool around in college?" the parent asked.

"I suppose. I missed classes once or twice. And I liked to go to the beach."

"No, I meant… fool around with girls."

Parents stumble into this question more ways than I could have anticipated when I started to write and speak about autism and education.

No answer I can offer based on personal experience can capture what another college student might experience. Every student is different. I entered college as an honors student, with all the "geekiness" that implies. I was also socially awkward in general, as readers of this blog can appreciate. During college, I lived in a special residence hall with faculty members living among students as mentors. It was not a "normal" experience, I recognize.

Some gifted students, some autistic students, are charming and will have active social lives. That is likely to include normal sexual experiences — and high school probably already included some of those experiences.

Other students are content to be focused on work and study. They might have a few sexual experiences, maybe short of intercourse and maybe not. There's no way to predict these things.

My answer won't help. It's really that simple. Did I do "things" with the young women I met and dated? This blog is probably not the best place for a checklist. Yes, "things" happen in college. What things happen vary by person.

Because you cannot predict what your student will experience, that's every reason to have frank, open discussions about sexuality and relationships. These are not synonymous, either. Sexual contact happens without deep relationships, especially on college campuses. Kissing, petting, touching, et cetera, happen. So have "the talk" as it relates to the college environment.

Parents, you also have to trust that college resident assistants / advisors (RAs) will talk to young freshmen about some of these issues. Colleges today do all they can to promote safe environments, including sex education outreach.

In the book on relationships and sexuality that I am preparing with a colleague, we will offer more explicit anecdotes and details about what a student might expect, but the key remains open dialogue with parents, educators, and support specialists.
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